Fiskebar: Copenhagen's trailblazing sustainable fish restaurant

Fiskebar: Copenhagen's trailblazing sustainable seafood restaurant

by Lucy Golding 10 January 2020

Lucy Golding pays British-born chef Jamie Lee a visit at his Copenhagen restaurant to learn more about the city's evolving food scene and how he's tackling sustainability in every way he can.

Lucy is a south London-based former news reporter turned food and drink publicist and writer.

Lucy is a south London-based former news reporter turned food and drink publicist and writer.

‘We had the guys from St John come over from London to serve up mussels and pigs’ trotters, Frankie Gallo from Barcelona came to make his famous pizzas for us and Fayuca, an amazing Mexican restaurant in Canada, served up Oaxacan bean tamales. We did the strawberries and cream,’ says British-born Jamie Lee, head chef of Copenhagen’s Fiskebar restaurant, as he reflects on its all-star tenth birthday party in June. ‘About 3,000 people turned up, from across the Copenhagen hospitality industry. We took over the whole car park and had a big stage in the centre for DJs with food stalls around the outside and partied till the early hours of the morning. It was really overwhelming to have so much support.’

When arriving in Copenhagen’s Kødbyens district on a bleak December morning, it takes some imagination to picture the carefree summer party scenes he describes from six months ago. It’s cold, around one degree above zero, whilst human sightings are scarce – only eyes are detectable through coats-cum-duvets and heavy-duty scarves. The area resembles a derelict parking lot, an expansive forecourt littered with the odd pushbike or truck. Encased by 1930s low-rise industrial white units (giving this specific pocket of the district the nickname ‘The White’ – notably different to ‘The Grey’ or ‘The Brown’), it’s just waiting to be filmed for a post-apocalyptic motion picture. Stroll further in and you’ll discover the units skirting its perimeter, housing a cluster of Copenhagen’s most exciting restaurants and bars.

Fisekbar, co-founded in 2009 by former Noma sommelier-turned-wine-maker Anders Selmer, is one of them, and has ironically made its home in a district that literally translates to mean ‘Meat City’, or the Meatpacking District to most. Its façade does little to signify the restaurant’s seafood specialism, as the oversized lettering on the roof reads Kød og Flæskehal (meat and pork hall) and sits beneath a sultry stone cow. Inside, Fiskebar offers a welcoming and vibrant retreat from the abrasive winter. Whilst not entirely cosy, it’s calming and comfortable, a place one could easily stay all day. The 100-cover dining room, positioned around a rectangular central bar, has deliberately honoured its slaughterhouse roots. Think original wall tiles, concrete floors and meat hooks used as coat hangers, albeit a 1,000-litre floor-to-ceiling aquarium does pay homage to its more recent incarnation.

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Chef Jamie Lee left Britain to work in Australia, before settling in Denmark after falling in love with the New Nordic food movement
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His restaurant Fiskebar is based in Copenhagen's Kødbyens meatpacking district

Awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand in its very first year (which has been retained to this day), the restaurant’s stark and simple backdrop brings due prominence to plates of food bursting with colour, all exquisitely comprised using ingredients ethically sourced from the Scandinavian shores. Dishes such as brill with smoked mussel puree, pickled burnt onion and rye; Faroe Island-sourced sea urchin served in its natural casing; lobster with celeriac cream and caviar (presented within a carved-out celeriac); and steamed horse mussels delicately dotted with pine and tomato all comprise part of a succinct yet imaginative winter menu. The serious seafood creations, along with a couple of meat and veggie options, are interspersed with plates on the more playful side. The sea cucumber hot dog, Jamie’s newest invention, is a canape-sized sea cucumber sausage, served in a seaweed brioche with mushroom ketchup.

Oysters fly out of the kitchen by the bucketload – up to 400 a day in the summer – where diners recline out front in deckchairs during Denmark’s luxuriously long days. From students who park up their bikes for a plate of fish and chips, to ‘will travel for food’ culinary thrill-seekers and locals looking for a couple of small plates and a beer, the accessibility of Fiskebar is always at the forefront.

‘We’re not striving to break boundaries. We strive to keep our offering a specific way, so diners know what they’re going to get – a good piece of fish and a nice glass of wine,’ adds Jamie, who arrived at Fiskebar as sous chef in 2012, aged twenty-five.

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Originally from Truro, before spending his childhood in north London, Jamie started his career working under Jason Atherton at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, before a stint at 1 Lombard Street in The City. Following this, he relocated to Australia when he was asked to open Maze in Melbourne. At the same time he began to develop an interest in New Nordic cuisine, a nerdiness installed by the first Noma cookbook.

‘I wasn’t keen on going back to London after discovering what was starting to happen in Denmark. It was all focused around minimalism, and it just made sense. Everyone was talking about this new movement, which was all about using local ingredients in your terroir. The foraging thing was also starting to become huge, which didn’t really exist before and there were no wild herbs being used. There were all these new flavours, ideas and philosophies being explored. It was exciting.’

After eighteen months in Oz, Jamie left the southern hemisphere and relocated to Scandinavia, a decision affirmed by his Danish then-girlfriend Nynne (now wife), jobless but eager to become part of the scene. He quickly landed a position with fellow Brit, chef Paul Cunningham, at his Tivoli Gardens restaurant The Paul (before Paul left Copenhagen to open his west coast restaurant Henne Kirkeby Kro), where he worked for two years. In 2012, a fresh opportunity came calling, just around the corner in up-and-coming Kødbyens.

‘At the time, there was little in the way of mid-level dining in Copenhagen and I was attracted to the vibrancy of Fiskebar. It was all gourmet restaurants and everyday dining but there was little in between. We had the potential to disrupt this. It was an immense opportunity, because we were still putting in the same effort and using quality ingredients, but we had the potential to access a new audience, to become part of forging a new culinary climate in the city.’

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King crab, cauliflower and roses
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The restaurant serves six different species of oyster, sourced from France, Denmark and Ireland

Head chef since 2013 and now a fully-fledged Danish resident – Jamie lives in the south of the city with Nynne and two children – his feelings towards the Danish capital remain as spirited as they did from the start.

‘I feel very free and closer to nature,’ he says. ‘I travel to work every day by bike, everything is very convenient and accessible and the seasons are very defining. After the beautiful long winter, it’s one of the best places to be in the summer. There is a good work-life balance and family time is taken very seriously. We have so many great producers and amazing restaurants here.’

Copenhagen’s restaurant scenes reflects a city far larger than its size. Considered a world-leader of culinary capital cities, it also boasts an impressive twenty-two Michelin stars. Kødbyens and its fringes alone is home to an array of internationally acclaimed restaurants, such as Rosio Sanchez’s Mexican joint Sanchez and the German butchery-centric Fleisch. Closer to the city centre, Jamie counts his friendly competitors to include newly opened fish restaurant Iluka and the informal Pluto, alongside Copenhagen’s classic establishments Nimb, Geranium and Geist.

‘It feels like we’re all on this exciting journey together, because the restaurant scene here is still relatively new in the city. It’s a very strong community in the sense that you can talk to a lot of the chefs in town about where you get produce from, or where they’re sourcing different ingredients. It’s a massively supportive place, because it is very small and you know everyone.’

Jamie’s admiration for Noma also remains as strong as it did back in the days as a novice chef. ‘Noma reinvents itself all the time. It’s not relying on the same protocol it started with, which is what I love about it. You just need to look at its approach to fermentation and that whole world it’s brought about, which flows through so many kitchens now, not to mention all the new flavours.’

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He discusses Rene Redzepi’s biannual culinary symposium MAD, aimed at bringing long-lasting sustainable change to the international restaurant landscape. ‘MAD is a great, great thing. It is extremely progressive, we talk not only about the food but about staff welfare, such as work hours, equality in the kitchen and the general environment. The welfare of the chefs is at the heart of the Fiskebar philosophy, which is a massive issue for the restaurant world in Copenhagen.’ This is a philosophy reflective of the Danish way of life in its entirety: Copenhagen has found itself at the top of ‘happiest cities in the world’ lists for years, for reasons stretching from clean air to paternity leave.

‘We aim to provide a fair work week and do whatever we can to install good team morale, including a lot of trips to see producers, farmers and.’ In November, Jamie and Anders led both the chefs and front of house to The Faroe Islands for some R&D, seafood feasts and good old-fashioned team bonding. ‘This time we discovered octopus caviar. It’s located in the head of the octopus and we hope to put on the menu soon. We also worked with ling liver, which tastes like foie gras. It’s on our menu now served with waffles and dried roses preserved from the summer. There is so much to discover in seafood; it’s an endless tale.’

Fiskebar sources its vegetables from the family-run biodynamic farm Kiselgarden, located a forty-minute drive west of the city, whilst the rest of the fish is sourced from the shores of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Every fish is sourced from coastal fisheries.

‘The fishing industry has been hit hard since the restaurant opened ten years ago,’ says Jamie. ‘A lot of the coastal fisheries have closed down and it’s a constant battle. The restaurant is aiming to help revive the coastal fisherman by not purchasing any trawled fish. This is when the fisherman go out to sea for weeks, and the fish is stored on ice during this whole time.’

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Fish, such as the mackerel in this beautiful dish, are sourced from across Norway in the most sustainable ways possible, with certain seafood such as horse mussels coming from the Faroe Islands
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Desserts are just as interesting as the savoury options, including chocolates flavoured with cep mushrooms and ice creams infused with the likes of fermented corn leaves

Fiskebar’s ethics surrounding the seafood supply chain extend further than the fishermen. In a city where trawled fish is still very much a market leader, the restaurant’s first steps came in December when it opened its very own pop-up fish shop, Fiskeslagteren (fish butcher).

‘We trialled this for a couple of the days in an empty unit across the car park and it was really successful. We want to roll it out, five days a week. The shop is a gateway to helping the supply of even more sustainable fish to flourish. We sold cod, trout, sea urchins, lobster, langoustines – everything we’ve ever worked hard to source sustainably.’

Fiskebar’s next move was hosting a pop-up restaurant at Soren Jessen’s Etke in London’s Bloomberg Arcade on 18 January 2020. It was the first time Jamie cooked in London for ten years; an exciting opportunity for the Fiskebar team to share a slice of Scandinavia in The City, whilst supporting the Nordic food scene flourishing across the continent.

‘It’s going to be a dream to come back to the UK to cook and I’m excited to explore the produce it has to offer again,’ says Jamie, who returns to the country to visit family around three times a year. ‘I am very passionate about the UK food scene. It’s bustling at the moment, and it looks better than ever.’